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Monday, August 23, 2010

Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero

It was not particularly easy for a kid to be a baseball fan in small town Texas during the late 1950s and early 1960s.  For the most part, all we had to work with were the statistics and player pictures on our baseball cards and the abbreviated box scores our local newspaper deigned to print (the more space the editor needed to fill, the more box scores we got).   Best of all, though, were the nationally televised weekend games, match-ups that so often featured the New York Yankees I had become a rabid Yankee fan by the beginning of the 1960 season – just as Roger Maris joined the team from Kansas City.
As exciting as that season was, no one would have dared predict that Maris might break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record in 1961 or that Mantle would keep almost the same home run pace right down to the last several weeks of the season.  Even small town newspapers were caught up in the excitement of the chase and, for a change, they printed some of the same articles big city fans were reading in their own papers.  But there must have been one subtle difference in what we read and what big city fans read because I was only vaguely aware, in Texas, that New Yorkers were rooting for only Mantle to break the record; if not Mantle, certainly not Maris, was the overwhelming sentiment there.
Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero is the complete Roger Maris biography.  And, because Maris was a private person who shared very few personal details with writers of the day, the book holds surprises even for those who witnessed the pressure-packed 1961 season and believe they already know the Roger Maris story.   Few, for instance, are likely to know that Maris was not born in North Dakota as he claimed or that “Maris” is not the original spelling of his surname – or about the dysfunctional family dynamic that caused the spelling to be changed.  
The biography, however, rightfully focuses on the way New York sportswriters and broadcasters conspired to ruin a good man’s reputation and to make him miserable during what could have been the best year of his life.  Old-school writers, in particular, hated to see Babe Ruth’s home run record fall and, if it had to be broken at all, the last thing they wanted to see was someone like Roger Maris do the breaking.  Because they did not consider Roger Maris to be a “true Yankee,” this unethical group of writers trashed his reputation on a daily basis.  They portrayed him as surly and unappreciative, a man who refused to play through his injuries the way Mantle played through his own.  They even covered for Mantle’s drinking problems and resulting lack of hustle while attacking Maris for not going full out even when ordered to play at a slower pace (to protect an injury) by his manager.  And it worked – fans in every American League city hated Maris and never failed to boo or jeer him, even in his home ballpark.
That was bad enough.  But just as bad was the unethical way  Commissioner Ford Frick decided to protect the home run record of Babe Ruth, a friend of his, by hanging the infamous “asterisk” on Maris, insisting that Ruth was still the single season champion for a 154-game schedule and that Maris was only the champion for a less impressive 162-game schedule (even though Ruth had three more overall at-bats than Maris).  But it gets still worse because, later in his Yankee career, the full extent of a hand injury was kept from Maris by the Yankee front office and his manager, Ralph Houk, a decision that all but ensured he would never fully regain the grip in that hand or be able to pull a ball like he did when it was healthy.  This is the same front office that failed to protect Maris from the rabid press in 1961 or even to promote his continuing chase to catch Ruth after the 154th game of the season, the same people who would send him off to St. Louis without ever recognizing what a great Yankee player he actually had been.
Understandably, Roger Maris hated the Yankee organization and Yankee fans by the time he was traded to St. Louis in an underhanded deal that turned out to be the biggest blessing of his career.  That he would be able to reconcile with the Yankee organization, thanks to the efforts of George Steinbrenner, and that he would learn to love baseball again because of his experiences with the St. Louis Cardinals, is the best part of the Roger Maris story.  When he died at age 51, still in the prime of life, baseball lost one of its all time greats, a man that, in my opinion, deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame despite the successful efforts of a group of despicable writers to keep him out of it.
Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero is not just a book for baseball fans because Roger Maris is a true American hero, a man whose story will be an inspiration to anyone who reads this revealing biography. 
Rated at: 4.5
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